Laura Heaton is a Nairobi-based writer and reporter.
Jan 30, 2012 12:00 AM EST
The mayhem has receded from Mogadishu-for the moment.
Somalia is one of the last places you'd find most U.S. investors. The
war-ravaged country hasn't had a functioning central government in 21 years,
since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship. Nearly every block in
the capital, Mogadishu, stands in ruins, many of them so old that trees and
thick vines have grown up through the wreckage, and the few houses that
haven't been entirely gutted by mortar fire are riddled with the bullet
scars of past street battles. But that devastation is precisely what has
brought Liban Egal back to the city of his birth. The Somali-American
businessman wants to get in early.
Egal emigrated from Somalia in 1988 amid armed insurrections that would
burst into full-blown civil war in 1991. He spent the next 20 years in
America, building a string of businesses-convenience stores, pizza parlors,
fried-chicken shops, check-cashing services-before he paid a visit to his
hometown last August and found a new world of opportunity. Residents say
Mogadishu's downtown feels more secure these days than it has since the
fighting began. "That gave me the hope that this is the beginning of
something," says the 42-year-old Egal. "In business, you have to pick up on
trends early enough to take advantage of them." Like the shopkeepers who
have finally begun repainting their battered storefronts, like the local
businessman who's building a hotel, Egal is gambling that the city's
newfound security will last.
Egal's arrival in Mogadishu coincided with a pivotal moment in the war. That
same month, the al Qaeda-linked group Al-Shabab was driven out of the city
by African Union peacekeepers and Somali troops under the flag of the
U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The militants presented
the pullout as merely a tactical maneuver, but the peacekeepers, the city's
residents, and the U.S. government all say Al-Shabab departed under intense
duress. "Infighting, financial hardships, and continuous loss of fighters
and strategic positions in city battles" made the group's retreat
inevitable, says Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for the African Union
Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Nevertheless, the struggle for control of the city continues. Reinforced by
the AMISOM outposts that now dot Somalia's eastern coast, the peacekeepers
have formed a perimeter around the city and have gradually pushed outward.
Sniper fire remains a part of everyday life on the town's outskirts, where
the front lines weave in and out through the living rooms, kitchens, and
courtyards of partially demolished houses. Peacekeepers say they take fire
from the militants most nights, and at times the shooting gets heavy. But
inside the perimeter of peacekeepers and ragtag TFG troops, the Al-Shabab
threat seems to be subsiding in a city where previous pacification attempts
have failed spectacularly.
AMISOM began five years ago in the wake of Addis Ababa's ill-advised 2006
intervention in Somalia, a move that had only worsened the bloodshed. The
fiercely nationalistic Somalis have a history of armed conflict with
neighboring Ethiopia, going back hundreds of years, and they were
unpersuaded by the insistence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that
his country was only seeking to protect its own borders. Instead, rising
Islamist factions like Al-Shabab were able to exploit the incursion to rally
the Somali public's support. Wanting no repetition of that disaster, the
African Union excluded Somalia's immediate neighbors from AMISOM's ranks.
The peacekeeping forces now number nearly 10,000, most of them from Uganda
and Burundi, but their deployment has been anything but smooth. At first
AMISOM was severely underfunded and underequipped, lacking essentials like
reliable flak jackets and armored personnel carriers that could withstand
the militants' roadside bombs. Hundreds of malnourished AMISOM soldiers fell
ill with the dietary deficiency beriberi, and at least a half dozen died
The supply situation has vastly improved since then. A Western security
expert says AMISOM owes its recent gains largely to a shift that began two
and a half years ago in the way the peacekeepers work with the TFG's
soldiers. "AMISOM decided to jump in and fight in the trenches [beside
them]," he says, asking not to be named because he isn't authorized to speak
to the media. "Before, AMISOM would take ground, then hand the keys over to
the TFG. And by 10 p.m., the TFG had given it back [to Al-Shabab]. They
couldn't hold." Advancing and holding is a much more demanding strategy for
the AU's forces, he admits, but it works better, especially in an urban
On one particularly contested section of the front line in the city's
Dayniile neighborhood, the bunkers most directly in the line of fire are
occupied by the Burundians. The adjoining section is controlled by the TFG's
men, who fight beside the Burundians to fend off the nightly Al-Shabab
assaults. Deployments are staggered that way all along the perimeter, AMISOM
commanders say. "We need to involve the people in the conflict, to be part
of the problem solv-ing," says the Ugandan contingent's commander, Col. Paul
Lokech. "That's why you see TFG everywhere here," he says, gesturing toward
the Somali soldiers posted at a roadblock at the Ugandan base's entrance and
toward others lounging in the shade of a shot-up building. "I always believe
that [the TFG] is my strength. They may be having their weaknesses, but I
must try my best to observe their strength and suppress their weaknesses."
It makes a difference that AMISOM's senior officers are prepared to accept
heavy casualties when necessary. The Burundians in Dayniile lost at least 50
men (and possibly more than 70) in a single day last October, pushing just
three miles farther along the road toward an Al-Shabab-controlled strip of
land known as the Afgooye Corridor. "Some of the former peacekeeping groups
that did not do as well as we have were sophisticated," says the
peacekeepers' top commander, Maj. Gen. Frederick Mugisha. "They had all the
technology. But technology [alone] in this environment does not work out.
You need to be in the trench, to accept some of these terrible conditions."
He's talking about the "Black Hawk Down" incident. On the afternoon of Oct.
3, 1993, Somalis led by the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid shot down two U.S.
helicopters. Eighteen American soldiers were dead before it was over, and a
mob dragged some of their corpses through the streets. President Bill
Clinton responded by ordering an end to hostile operations against Aidid and
soon pulled out of the country entirely. The Western security expert has
studied the battle intimately, and he continues to ponder its aftermath. "In
the early 1990s, the Americans had the philosophy of 'no casualties,'" he
says. "By noon on Oct. 4, we could have walked to the stadium. Aidid was out
of bullets. We could have fixed Somalia for the rest of our lifetime."
Security in Mogadishu has reached a tipping point, says a civilian adviser
working with AMISOM. After years of watching the ebb and flow of conflict in
the capital, he predicts that AMISOM's progress will stick this time.
"People needed to see a winner," he says. "And AMISOM gave them a winner."
Al-Shabab gained popular support at first simply because it seemed able to
bring stability. Most Somalis tend to be pragmatic above all, says Egal: "A
lot of people I know who don't even pray are pretending to be part of that
religious lifestyle so they can be accepted." Now those businessmen are
finding their names on U.N. sanctions lists and their assets frozen. The
trend is shifting. Somalis have seen how ruthless Al-Shabab's version of
Islam can be. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been driven to the
edge of starvation by the group's blockades against Western food aid. And
they're tired of war. "They have been in a conflict for 20 years, and they
have seen a lot of suffering," says General Mugisha. "They also want some
Last week the U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, relocated
from Kenya to Mogadishu for the first time in 17 years. The trouble is that
Mogadishu remains the only city in Somalia where AMISOM and the TFG have an
overt presence. In an interview with Newsweek, TFG Prime Minister Abdiweli
Mohamed Ali dismissed this characterization as no more than a popular
"mantra"-the TFG controls many other swaths of the country, he says. In
fact, what he calls government "control" is more accurately government
"influence," according to AMISOM officials. Outside Mogadishu, the
anti-Shabab forces are a hodgepodge of local clan militias and
foreign-backed paramilitary groups.
In the past few months the fight against the militants has been
unceremoniously joined by forces from Kenya in the south and Ethiopia in the
west. At first TFG President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed objected to the Kenyan
incursion. "We cannot accept military intervention which the Somali
government is not aware of," he told reporters in Mogadishu. Several days
later he reversed his position, and now the U.N. Security Council is
considering expansion of the African Union's mission to nearly 18,000
peacekeepers, allowing the Kenyans to fight under AMISOM's banner. The
Ethiopians have no such standing, but they're said to be working side by
side with TFG forces.
Most Somalis are sufficiently sick of Al-Shabab to support-or at least not
oppose-anyone who can stop the militants. "Putting additional pressure on
Al-Shabab at this moment, when it has already been pushed back in Mogadishu,
I think is going to be helpful," says James Swan, the U.S. special
representative for Somalia, speaking to Newsweek in Nairobi. "So from a
purely military standpoint we see potential advantages in having multiple
fronts." Not that he blames the Somali president for being taken aback by
Kenya's abrupt invasion of southern Somalia in October. "It was well known
that Kenyans were training Somali forces with the expectation that those
forces would go into [southern Somalia], so we were certainly aware of
that," says Swan. "I think that the decision, however, by the Kenyan
military to send its own troops into Somalia did come as a surprise, so
that's why we saw a bit of a scramble in the immediate aftermath."
The big question now is what comes next. In particular, what will fill the
void if Al-Shabab is forced out of its strongholds? "If [the military
operation] is going to be effective, it's also going to have to be linked to
local administrations that are reflective of clan dynamics in those areas
and local political influences," Swan says. "Ideally, it would have a
linkage back to the TFG in Mogadishu."
Still, no one has much confidence that Somalia's fractious political leaders
can actually run a country. What happens if they prove incapable of building
a working peacetime government? "I cannot foresee in the near future having
a fully functional government in place," says AMISOM's deputy
representative, Wafula Wamunyinyi, at his office in Mogadishu. "I don't
foresee it." Bloody fistfights have broken out multiple times recently in
the 550-member TFG Parliament, a bloated institution where corruption is
endemic and clan rivalry is often heated. The latest bouts put several
legislators in the hospital.
And yet Liban Egal remains optimistic. "I believe if the trend continues,
investment will come," he says. "Then politics becomes less important,
because it won't change your life." His pilot venture, the First Somali
Bank, is scheduled to open in February, and his wife, Hibo, plans to be
there for the opening ceremony. It will be the first time she's been back to
Somalia since she left as a teenager in 1991. Liban Egal admits he's never
run a bank before, but he has hired a team of specialists, including a
Frenchman who has spent 25 years in investment banking and a former employee
of Kenya's national bank. "Nothing's 100 percent," he says. "If security
gets worse, this project will never work." But he's betting things won't
fall apart again. "And if it takes time to get better, I'm willing to wait
it out." Millions of war-weary Somalis are waiting with him.
------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------
Received on Fri Feb 03 2012 - 07:32:33 EST